PAUSE: A Returning Look at 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer' (1986)
The '80s was the golden era of slasher flicks. Jason and Freddy dominated the horror genre, but in 1986 along came 'Henry' - a seedy little picture showing the sinister nature of the real boogeyman committing horrendous acts all over America. Gruesome, pioneering and a smart take on the slasher film, this article takes a look back at this alarmingly real portrait of a mass-murderer at large.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of those movies that is outwardly deceiving. At first glance, one would assume that this is little more than a low-budget '80s B-Movie slasher, with little substance or purpose other than to shock. However, as you move deeper into the film this misconception melts away into one of absorbed horror; almost like watching a train crash. It's a brutal, uneasy watch but one with truly frightening implications. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, despite its mediocre production value, does the very best with what it has at hand.
The film is spliced from its commencement with tableaux after tableaux of gruesome murder, with the echoing sounds of the off-screen attacks providing an eerie soundtrack. It is implied through viewer assumption at the obvious and the brooding nature of our anti-hero that these killings are the work of the titular 'Henry'.
Henry is a drifting tight-lipped loner who comes to live briefly with his friend Otis and Otis' sister Becky in Chicago. All the while, vicious murders are being committed off-screen, presented in still shots of the victim in death-pose while their screams lull in and out of the soundtrack. Henry's skillful evasiveness is no more present than in these moments; he acts swiftly and then vanishes, like a ghost leaving trails of bodies in his wake, all the while seeking his next victim. The sheer scope of his killings seem almost ludicrous when watching the movie, but the variations in method and style posit Henry as a truly clever killer, never leaving a calling card that could link him to every sordid crime he commits.
After being introduced to Henry, Becky becomes smitten with his quiet nature. She confesses her childhood abuse, and in turn, Henry divulges the appalling treatment he suffered at the hands of his mother, a kind so abhorrent it resulted in her death by his hand. But in one moment, he slips, referring to killing his mother by gun when a few minutes ago he recalled it was by knife. So which is it? Knife, or gun? Herein lies Henry's great trick. He is shrouded in mystery, and won't let anyone come close enough to know the truth. Most importantly, it retains the view of Henry in the viewer's eye as an enigma.
Michael Rooker, who many of today's audience might be shocked to recognise as the blue-skinned arrow-wielding space dad Yondu from Marvel's 'Guardians of the Galaxy' franchise, is brilliantly understated in his sullen turn as Henry. His almost hard-fought reluctance to remain silent, along with his methodical brooding is fascinating, and works as a perfect antithesis to Otis' excitable eagerness for gratification. Henry is the expert, a real artist in his perverse craft, and he must often reel in the frantic energy of Otis' sick impulses to avoid ruining the perfect murder scene.
What is most interesting, and perhaps morally perplexing about the film, is its brief glimmers of Henry being depicted as a nice guy. Weird, sullen and withdrawn as he is, he's also fiercely protective, and will not stand for Otis' brutal attacks on his sister. There's also the faint idea that, when it comes to his relationship with Becky, Henry might have the capacity to fall in love. That is what is portrayed to us, anyway. And there is always that fruitless wonder that Becky's affections will change him. But Henry is ultimately baffled by Becky's romantic response to his protectiveness over her; he simply doesn't know what to do with love, having never been afforded any in his life. Rooker is brilliant at this, especially in the scenes where Otis is filming a home movie of them with a stolen video camera. We can almost see, through this grainy window of the camcorder, the cogs turning in Henry's head as he dances with her, trying to figure out if he has it within himself to be normal. Testing it, seeing what it feels like - if he feels anything at all.
The film is also loosely based on true events, making it doubly harrowing. It takes creative license in depicting the alleged crimes of duo Henry Lee Lucas 'The Confession Killer', and his confidant Ottis Toole. While the film remains true to certain elements of the lore - for example in its inferences to O[t]tis' homosexuality - it hoards together fictionalised elements with snapshots of the true crimes to make an altogether more chilling portrayal. It's now thought that Lucas did not commit many of the crimes he confessed to. However, the depraved nature of their partnership rings with resounding truth in the movie, simply in different forms.
Perhaps the most disturbing element of 'Henry' is not the title character himself. Even though Henry is mysterious in terms of history and method, in his nature he is fairly black and white. We, the audience, know exactly what he is from the get-go. However, Becky's brother Otis is a different story entirely. Appearing initially as the bumbling, wife-beater sporting hick and resident drunkard of the house, Otis is not wholly threatening on first examination. But, as the film develops his more twisted side is revealed, accentuated and set free by the new presence of Henry. With someone beside him who is blatantly committing murders left, right and centre, Otis indulges in his urges, much to Henry's eventual chagrin. The only thing holding him back prior to Henry's arrival in Chicago was fear of apprehension.
Otis takes the tone of the movie to murkier levels than Henry is capable of due to his sexual urges. Henry views himself as above sexual motivations for killing, but Otis is not. Once he has a taste for it, his turn-ons devolve into an endless list. This repugnant leeriness is most obviously displayed in his constant sexualisation of his own sister. Perhaps this is what makes them an odd, dysfunctional but overall compelling murder duo - Henry provides the orchestration, execution and expert style of the killings, while Otis provides the seedy depravity that an almost vacant Henry is missing.
The film's denouement is a gory fest of anger and palpable energy. Its fairly reserved display of violence in the first two thirds makes its climax all the more shocking. The graphic nature of what plays out is such a juxtaposition to the uncomfortable but still implications of the tableaux deaths in the beginning, that it is almost nausea-inducing. It is here that we truly see Henry's thought process at work, his ultimate detachment from the reality of death, and the impersonal nature with which he treats it. The sounds of him dismembering a body in a bathtub are something I'll never forget post-viewing.
The sudden turning of the violence amp up to 11 from an average level before is a brilliant move by filmmaker John McNaughton, and despite the aged nature of its special effects, the film knows what it is doing. Enough can be seen for your mind to do the rest of the work, helped along by the foul sounds of Henry doing what he does best. What is genius about this film's pacing and placement of scenes is that it doesn't prepare you for it. While the crimes Otis and Henry commit throughout the majority of the film's 83-minute run-time are uncomfortable and disgusting, they do not fully prepare you properly for what is to come in its final third.
Upon release, the film's tagline was "He's not Freddy, or Jason. He's real", and while that tagline may appear at first read to sound horrifically cheesy, there really is no better way to sum up the film. 'Henry' is as unnerving as any far-fetched slasher flick with dream-traversing villains and camp-dwelling maniacs hell-bent on revenge. In fact, it is probably more so, simply for the fact that you can imagine this happening in real life. Half of the movie's basis is in reality, so it truly makes for an unnerving watch. Even a shot as simple as the camera slowly zooming in on a large suitcase Henry discards by the side of the road is enough to make your stomach turn. And here lies 'Henry''s brilliance - a slow burn punctuated with only by allusions to depravity make its explosive finale a truly arresting scene.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a small, fairly short and gritty movie that, despite its creative license with the law it is based on, instills a grave recognition of reality with its portrayal of an insidiously slippery but prolific and quick-working serial murderer. Its gore is paced well and is not gratuitous without reason. It's no '80s take on a torture porn film. Instead it is a well-balanced profile of a man totally detached from human emotion. Its bloodier moments only serve to show how natural the act of killing and disposing of evidence has become to Henry through his rote murders across the country. The film also knows exactly when to stop. Before the act of watching Henry kill and kill without consequence the film ends, leaving you with the haunting implications of its open end.
Moreover, it is a smart slasher film. More subtle than the eponymous blood-splatter flicks of its decade and less overtly cheesy; put simply, 'Henry' is a slasher without the fun. It doesn't have the scares or the adrenaline-induced fright of Jason Vorhees jumping out at happy campers, blade in hand. These films are a riot as far as movie entertainment is concerned. But the fear 'Henry' induces is different. It's paranoia over who you let come into your home after they knock on the door pretending to be pest control. It's also a disturbing epiphany over just how profoundly void of basic empathy some people can be. Henry, often deterring Otis from passion-induced killings, kills at random, as quick and as easy as if it were of no significance at all. Both Jason and Freddy have an insatiable revenge - a motivation. Henry kills because it is simply who he is.
The implications of this drain all the fun out of the film as far as the typical slasher formula goes. Instead it remains as it was intended: a nauseating snapshot of a killer who is dazzlingly real and more aloof, dangerous and frightening than any of the slasher titans. He wears no mask, no costume. He appears as a normal man walking the street, entering shops, buying groceries. Underneath all that, he hides a lethal nature that is only revealed through the blank stare of depravity that Rooker captures perfectly.
As can likely be guessed from this edition of 'PAUSE', Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a film not for the faint of heart. While serving as an excellent study of a man truly detached from feeling and undergoing the ritual sacrifice of all potential social bonds, it is, in part, grotesque. Therefore, if you've read this article thinking you might need a deeper foray into the film's nature before pressing 'PLAY' then check out this excellent breakdown by SpookyRice on YouTube.
Spooky's channel is a perfect way to get the low-down on some of cinema's most nightmare-inducing controversial movies without suffering them yourself. It's also a great way to scope out whether a film is watchable for you, rather than basing it on rumour and internet lore. His voice is also super happy and chill and a much-needed relief from the gruesome content he covers in his videos. Check him out for a chirpy, succinct and less daunting summary of 'Henry':